The death of Hugo Chavez will have ramifications far beyond the borders of Venezuela. From the White House to the Kremlin, Tehran and Damascus to Bogota and Brasilia, world leaders will today have to begin adjusting to life without El Comandante. For a man whose political ambitions were never limited to Venezuela alone it would have been a source of some pride that his death is today the first item at meetings in foreign ministries across the world.
His demise presents a series of opportunities and threats – for Venezuela, its allies and indeed those who were perhaps less than enamoured with Chavez, most notably the United States.
America has lost a bogeyman. The moustachioed former bus driver who will take Chavez’s place, Nicolás Maduro, is not the sort of man to make jokes comparing George W Bush to the devil, nor is he likely to embrace Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with quite such fervour. But the change in leadership offers President Obama the chance to recalibrate a relationship with Latin America as a whole, a relationship that a Pacific president embroiled in the Middle East has rarely given the attention it deserves.
Decades of American backing – covert or otherwise – for coup leaders and right-wing generals has damaged the country’s reputation south of the Rio Grande. Chavez’s anti-Americanism was partly borne out of the Bush administration’s tacit approval for the botched coup attempt that temporarily forced him from power in 2002.
On the rare occasions when Obama has turned his attention south his words have suggested a willingness to see the region as a partner, but the outsized persona of Chavez did not always make this easy. A rapprochement with Maduro would send a signal to La Paz, Quito and most importantly Havana that times are a-changing.
In Latin America itself, Chavez’s death will have implications. He never achieved his dream of a Latin America-wide Bolivarian revolution. His influence may have extended to Ecuador and Bolivia but elsewhere in the region, parties of the left looked to Lula da Silva in Brazil as the model to follow. Yet Chavez was admired even by those whose politics were diametrically opposed.
The complexities of Chavez, often ignored by many in the West, were better understood by his neighbours. While he had previously given support to FARC guerrillas in Colombia he was subsequently instrumental in bringing them to the negotiating table alongside the Colombian government. The talks currently taking place in Havana rested in large part on Chavez’s ability to persuade FARC leaders it was worth his while. A decade ago a Colombian president would perhaps be glad to see Chavez gone – Juan Manuel Santos certainly will not.
It is easy to portray Chavez as a demagogue, an anti-American, a tyrant. He was, at times, all these things. But the foreign-policy legacy he leaves is more complicated than that – in a unipolar world he was one of the few political leaders to offer a different vision, however unappealing that may have been to some.
Steve Bloomfield is Monocle’s foreign editor.